The Role of Allies in the Modern Era: Four Choices for Western Governments

The Role of Allies in the Modern Era: Four Choices for Western Governments

Kyle R. Brady

On January 20 2017, U.S. President Trump was inaugurated and entered a world that includes a resurgent Russia, a combative China, continued problems with terrorism, and varying levels of destabilization across the globe.  It is in this environment that the American role in NATO has been both questioned and actively threatened, trade agreements have been dissolved, stable relations with foreign states have been disrupted along multiple fronts, long-standing immigration policies have been radically changed, and both protectionism and interventionism appear to be on the rise.  Therefore, at this point in 2017, it is important to review the role of allies in the modern era.

Although alliances, both formal and informal, existed long before the concept of statehood, the arrangements of states have long played crucial roles in world affairs.  This is particularly true of the 20th century, where alliances caused and ended World War I, ended World War II, and ensured that Europe was sufficiently protected from Soviet invasion over a half-century.  In the 21st century, however, the role of formal alliances is less clear, in both in principle and in practice. 

Over the past seventeen years, the United States has repeatedly struggled to build so-called coalitions for military engagement, consequently choosing to undertake unilateral or semi-unilateral action, without the full support of the United Nations,[i] NATO, or both.  Meanwhile, the European Union[ii] and NATO have each struggled with a sense of purpose, financial support, and commitments, particularly without the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact to stand in opposition.  Further, the interests of the United States, the European Union, and individual European states seem increasingly divergent and internecine, even as American relations with Pacific allies continues to reach ever-greater levels of importance.

What, then, is the role of allies and alliances in the modern era?  There are four choices for Western governments.


The most ineffectual approach to allies and alliances is to employ them as showpieces:  listing them as points of favor and support, but not exploring mutually beneficial connections, failing to support them when needed, or actively rallying against them when suitable for domestic political purposes.  This clearly stretches the definition of an alliance between states, as it is essentially a form of transient utilization, but it is a choice, nonetheless.  Treating allies as showpieces produces no tangible gains for any party involved.

Military Depots

If favorable ties with allied states are maintained only for the purposes of creating military depots, then this too stretches the definition of an alliance.  Although there is great benefit to a state’s ability to place military resources in a forward position, closer to an expected location of deployment, this approach is reliant largely upon the goodwill of the host state.  Except in cases of a clear existential threat or noteworthy financial gain, it is unlikely that states will tolerate being used as storage for extended periods of time.  Despite its less than total appeal, this approach to alliances has been successfully and repeatedly employed.

Emergency Resources

A more historically common approach to alliances is one that treats states as future partners in great conflicts, but otherwise leaves them to their own efforts.  In this way, states can be allied against future enemies and be confident in receiving the support and resources they will need, while undertaking no burdens in the present.  This approach to allies as emergency resources to be called upon has been very popular but has achieved only mixed success.  If employed, this approach should attempt to also cultivate the results of the military depot approach, to maximize efficacy, but simultaneously avoid complicated alliance structures that would inevitably lead to multi-state warfare.

Grand Strategy Partners

The most successful role of allies and alliances is as partners in a grand strategy.  Although this approach can be viewed strictly militarily, it can also be applied to strategies political, diplomatic, or humanitarian in nature: when states ally for a common goal or purpose, rather than to simply defeat some identified aggressor, there exists great potential for the achievement of good.  Such an alliance can improve world order, eradicate threats, prevent destabilization, and work toward the greater good; alternatively, it can have all the same large-scale and widespread effects but for distinctly negative goals.  This form of alliance is rarer than employing states as emergency resources, but the benefits to employing grand strategy partners are much more tangible and holistic, so long as these partners can be convinced to cooperate, both initially and on a continued basis.  If achieved, grand strategy partners provide all the benefits of showpieces, military depots, and emergency resources, without the negatives of each separate alliance strategy.


As the world transitions to one of domestic destabilization and international instability, understanding the choices for integrating allies into a state’s needs and properly choosing which method to employ is more important in the modern era than it was in the late 20th century.  If the world is to avoid large-scale wars, allies and alliances must play an intelligent and intentional role in effectively navigating the dynamics of the international theatre.  Cultivating interstate relationships for the purpose of creating grand strategy partners must be the goal of Western governments, even in this age of populist protectionism.

Opinions expressed in this paper are directly and expressly the author's own; they do not represent -- unless stated -- his employers (past, present, or future) or associated/affiliated institutions.

End Notes

[i] While the United Nations is not an alliance, its sanctioning of military engagements can be interpreted as effectively providing systemic architecture to more easily develop coalitions and/or alliances.

[ii] The European Union is a political, economic, and non-military union of states, but also deeply intertwined with the military affairs of the United States and reliant upon NATO for defense.


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From the "grand strategy" perspective, if we saw:

a. During the Old Cold War (1948 - 1990), allies from the perspective of "advancing market democracy" -- in this case, via the "containing communism" approach. And

b. During the recent New/Reverse Cold War (1991 - 2016), allies from the perspective of "advancing market democracy" -- in this case, via the (failed) "overthrowing dictators and their regimes" approach. Then,

Today, might we see allies from the perspective of (a) again "advancing market democracy" but, in this case, (b) via the "use the existing regimes" approach?

Thus, in this new "advancing market democracy" approach (wherein, the powerful national leaders and not their wimpy populations are seen to be our true way forward) to better understand both:

a. Grand strategy today? And

b. If not our old, then certainly our new (Russia?) allies?

(International modernization/nation-building/"development"/etc., thus, to be seen not so much as "our" major project and "our" major concern but, rather, "theirs." These such folks [to wit: our new allies -- certain of the existing regimes], thus, being required to both [a] make the necessary state and societal "transformational" efforts themselves -- when, where and how they see most fit and [b] deal with the "Jacksonian"* backlash/revolts -- which are so common to these such "modernizing" efforts?)